Sunday, 19 February 2012

Spain Explained (1): Judge Garzón

Over on the Spanish side of the valley, where I sometimes do my shopping, people keep asking me what I think of Judge Baltasar Garzón being put on trial and kicked out of his career by his fellow judges. Some question indeed! One not lightly answered! For it is about as easy to explain Spanish politics as it is to determine the perspective of an Escher print beyond reasonable doubt. Whenever you think you have reached terra firma, it turns out you were looking at your surroundings upside down and inside out.

To understand the Spanish judicial system, one must always keep one dire point in mind: in Spain, the law is like an army’s heavy artillery: you only bring it out if there is an enemy to battle. All the other activities are mere trials (nunca mejor dicho…)

So what about Judge Garzón? I think Judge Garzón had it coming, and the surprise is not that they got him, but that it took them so long.

Who is They? you ask. Well… Other then what the international press tries to make you think, “They” is not only the disreputable fascist die-hard Francoists burrowed deep into the country’s institutions (if the truth be told, there are few of those left). “They” is quite simply Everybody. Garzón’s mistake, as well as his grand virtue, is that over the last decades he took on all comers: left and right, high and low, rich and poor, Spaniards and foreigners, Castilians, Basques, Catalans and the occasional Martian. He prosecuted drug dealers and ETA-members. Soccer bigwigs, cleptocrat politicians, and tax evaders. He hounded Felipe Gonzales and his cronies for organising government death squads, and Augusto Pinochet for doing the exact same thing on a bigger scale on the other side of the Atlantic.

In northern, protestant countries such unprejudiced activity might have gained him a formidable reputation for incorruptibility, honesty and fairness. Think the Good Samaritan, if you will, or Elliott Ness. But this is Spain. And in Spain, such nonpartisan behaviour merely brings you the enmity of all, since you serve nobody’s purpose. The Socialists never forgave the man for exposing the crimes of the Gonzalez governments. The Conservatives – who loved and praised him while he took on ETA and Felipe – growled when he went for General Pinochet, that upright fellow who, in the eternal words of Lady Thatcher ‘Brought Democracy to Chile’! My good friend Igor, father to my godchildren and a very fine man, makes a nice example. Having learned to hate Bolshevism because grew up in Soviet Kiev, he objected to Garzón’s action with the words: ‘Salvador Allende was handing power to the Communists, for crying out loud! And Garzón is only prosecuting Pinochet to make himself important.’
Now, there is no denying that Judge Garzón is good at self-promotion. He is somewhat vain (His suits never wrinkle! His hair obeys him! His smile fits on his passport picture!), and he does not shun the lime light, to put it mildly. But personally, I could never much care about his motives. If it takes vanity to prosecute evil-doers relentlessly, then bring on the vanity! By the bucket if you please!

But vanity, in combination with success, often turns into hubris. And I fear this is what happened with Garzón, for in the last three years or so, he did his enemies a favour by opening himself wide up to counterattack. Three cases were brought against him simultaneously; and in each of the three, a man of my Old Bailey experience cannot help but frown and wonder at Garzón’s lack of judgement.

In the first case, he ordered the listening in and taping of conversations between a number of defendants and their lawyers inside the jailhouse. The defendants – closely linked to the ruling PP party – stand accused of a tremendous web of corruption, and Garzón defends his action saying that he suspected the lawyers of helping out in the cover up, and the perpetuation, of the criminal activities. All good and well, but lawyer-client conversations are sacrosanct in a state of law, no matter what. Garzón should have known better.

The second case is no less murky. Some years ago Garzón took a sabbatical to go teach international law at a US university. A prominent Spanish banker then subsidised this university course with a goodly few millions. Shortly before, Garzón had dropped a criminal investigation into the doings of this banker. All involved deny any connection. But as old Julius said when he divorced his falsely slandered spouse: ‘Caesar’s wife should not only be innocent, she should also appear to be innocent!’ Wry words that sometimes ring true. Garzón should have known better.

The third and last affair concerns Garzón’s initiative, some years ago, of investigating the crimes of the Franco regime during the Civil War and the subsequent Dictatorship. This one really inflamed the Spanish right, who may no longer be Francoists, but are utterly defensive when it comes to judging the regime’s role in history (along the lines of ‘not everything was evil…’ and ’40 years of peace…’) These protest that the Amnesty Law, passed with everybody’s consent back in 1977 when Spanish democracy was being set up, forbids the prosecution of any such deeds as murder and torture done by either side. Garzón counters that the misdeeds in question are Crimes Against Humanity, which never prescribe. A moot and valid point, no doubt, were it not that he himself, in the past, dropped a case against those responsible for the left-wing massacre of thousands of right-wing victims in the cemetery of Paracuellos, a little affair no less Nuremberg-worthy… Which somewhat weakens his argument, if you ask ol’ Al. Must I say it? Okay, once more then: Garzón should have known better.

So Garzón only got his just deserts? The Spanish judiciary merely meted out impeccable justice? Well… Yeah… No… There we go racing up those Escher staircases again, desperately looking for the right perspective. Alfred B. Mittington is no fan of conspiracy theories, since he considers most of humanity too dumb to organise a good one. But in this case we must recognize a remarkable concerted action, say. For one thing, eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations is regularly done in Spain, and so far no judge was ever denounced or tried for it. The colleague who took over the bribery investigation from Garzón, actually continued doing so. Yet he is not being prosecuted either! It would seem that the heavy artillery was not needed everywhere…

More telling than that, however, is the fact that THREE such suits were brought all at once against the uppity eye-catching magistrate of no loyalties and few friends. This makes the independent observer suspect that his foes wanted to make sure that at least one of the indictments would stick. And so it happened. Last week Garzón was nicely sentenced to 11 years of disqualification from judicial activity. He is now 56, so he’ll go seamlessly from exclusion to retirement, from ban to pension. A day or two later, the case involving his banker Maecenas was quietly dropped. It was no longer strictly needed, and nobody in Spain is eager to antagonize the country’s superrich and superpowerful. Lastly, the case about investigating the Dictatorship is still on the agenda. This, I guess, because it screams for retribution, and is a handy ace in the hole in case Garzón appeals his sentence, or takes it – God forbid! – to the European Court of Human Rights. Where concerted action is a wee bit more difficult to organize…

So: do you now know clearly where you stand in that Escher maze?


Me neither.

But at least we know that we are lost, right? 

[POSTSCRIPT: About a week after the above was published, the last of the three cases against Garzón was likewise dropped. The guns had spoken and had been heeded. They could now return to barracks.]


  1. Your account Mr.Albert B. is a touch, should I say, condescending against Spanish Law and its appliccation.
    You point out rightly some of the misdeeds of Garzón, hardly a saint. You fail to point out, for example, the obvious political interests of the man himself, who only started investigating the GAL when he didn´t get offered the high position in the González government he was expecting. The same González and government whom he very likely knew already had started the antiterrorist terrorist GAL.
    The Paracuellos refusal of course hardly shows his passion for justice in a good light.
    You also fail to point out that, even if some of the people wanting to investigate the republicans killed are good faith relatives, the whole thing, dug up 80 years after the war ended, obeys much more to the political electionneering interests of the worst elements of the Zapatero government.
    You make a wild and mistaken assumption that all Spanish judges do listen to conversations between lawyers and their clients, which is a wild and false statement. The only case in which the LAW allows such practices is in cases of terrorism, I believe.
    Also the Gürtel corruption was about a few suits, for crying out aloud, not about the gigantic web of corruption you suggest.
    Your comments have more than a whiff of a patronising contempt for things Spanish, which is a little irritating, much as one might be critical of one´s own country, but one is equally critical of the blind prejudices with which foreigners from up north tend to look at things over here.
    In fact, some might say that the Garzón case shows Spain's respect for the law in the best light.
    For crying out aloud, the man has been condemned by independent judges from the Supreme Court with the Law in hand and his practices in evidence.
    Garzón is a far cry from those italian judges who payed with their life for trying to investigate the mafia.
    Not the hero the New York Times tries to make him to be.

  2. Dear Anonymous Contributor (at whose identity I can, however, guess with 100 % certainty),

    I will gladly and respectfully let your opinions on Judge Garzon, on the Spanish judiciary and on the various criminal cases mentioned in the post, stand without further comment. Let every reader weigh your views and my own for himself.

    The one remark that I must, however, object to, is your dismissal of the so-called Gürtel case as a matter of merely 'a few suits'. Far from this, the Gürtel case has all the appearance of being one of the greatest financial scandals of the last 40 years. And that is saying something… Let's just wait until the Spanish courts finally get their act together, and bring the affair to trial (which still has not been done today, January 2016!)

    Respectfully, ABM